How might we improve the problem solving capacity of a global university-based network?

Refining Network Goals, Clarifying Network Opportunities


The US Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a global experiment in 2012 with its Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN).  The ambitions of the program were bold: utterly change how universities, their faculty, staff, students, and partners, use their resources to advance development solutions.  USAID identified 8 Development Labs from 7 universities such as MIT, Duke, and Makerere, to serve as their core network partners. In initiating the program, designing the individual Labs – their staffing structures, goals, pilot sites – came first.  Figuring out how to network the individual Labs proved another challenge entirely.


It was obvious from the start that networking opportunities among the Labs abounded.  From student exchanges, to co-locating pilot projects, to sharing research findings, the options seemed limitless.  Our task, then, was to identify the most promising opportunities for collaboration — the ones that build a sturdy bridge over the widest of gaps faced by the Labs.  Working with USAID, GKI designed a multi-stage process for boosting network interactions and outcomes among the Labs.  We started by collecting a lot of information from the Labs and USAID.  We then led an internal working session in which the Lab and USAID staff identified their top networking priorities, and key resources they had to offer to the group.  Finally, GKI designed a public brainstorming session at the HESN annual conference, and trained USAID staff members to facilitate it. The session identified specific ways to strengthen network interactions, as informed by Lab members and a broad array of external partners.

Results / Outcomes

  • Improved the collaboration and network potential of the HESN Lab members
  • Led 28 Lab representatives in a multi-day network planning session
  • Identified 24 critical networking activities / 22 sharable resources
  • Trained 16 USAID staff members in group facilitation techniques
  • Built trust and enthusiasm among Lab leads, a precursor to partnership


USAID White Paper: Tools for Innovation (PDF) – Transforming development through science, technology and innovation: a USAID white paper highlighting tools for innovation co-authored by GKI